Showing posts from April, 2011

The Annunciation

I had a space in the morning so dipped into the Metropolitan, and chose the Northern Renaissance in order to stop being overwhelmed.
I spent my time with two Annunciations by Hans Memling.
They are calm and intimate. In both, Mary demurrers her assent by pointing to the book she is reading, implying it is written, I can do no other. But she could. She is a free agent.
The story needs its wonder restored - what is it that moves this particular woman to accept the divine burden, what is it in her that gives the divine birth?
This mystery is only driven back by her own stainless conception! Is it simply that the divine son must arise out of a pure consciousness. It is not assent that Mary offers but recognition that the angel brings. She is recognized as a sign of the purity of consciousness that gives rise to divine incarnation. If we wish to be newly born, it is the creation of a vessel that can bear that truth, that is required of us.
The sadness of the story, as now enshrined in dogma,…

Lemming anxiety

I remember a cartoon of a small furry animal sitting on a psychtherapist's couch, looking anxious, and saying to the therapist seated behind him, 'Depressed, depressed, of course, I am depressed, I am a lemming'!
I was sitting watching the people throng the streets need Grand Central Station, New York, enjoying the first real sun of Spring and the opportunity of sitting out on the pavement (as I was) talking, eating and drinking. It was a vibrant city scene.

But I had a jaundiced day, was feeling confused and uncertain, and so had come out to relax and brought my current book for company, that and the opportunities to people watch, over a glass of wine.

Mistake! The book, Gavin Francis' 'True North', which is excellent, was 'now' in Greenland and he had reached a point where he touched on 'the canary in the cage' - Greenland's retreating glaciers, sliding ever more energetically into the sea, the Artic's signaling of climate change; and…

True North

True North: Travels in Arctic Europe is a charming and intelligent travel account of one man's fascination with 'the North': once the boundaries of a known world. A world being freshly discovered as shifts in climate open it once more to exploitation - of travel, of transport and of resources - a change that may arrest the slow depopulation of many of the places Gavin Francis visits.

He starts in Shetland (together with Orkney) two highly independent sets of people off the north coast of Scotland (who are decidedly not Scottish) who, however, remain dependent on living in a wider whole (of the United Kingdom). Like the Faroese islanders, fiercely themselves, yet dependent on Denmark for subsidy and opportunities for higher education and employment opportunity. Only Iceland has broken this pattern, having the critical mass for independence, though one now challenged by financial crisis and hoped for European Union membership.

One aspect that I had only barely realized of t…

Happy Easter

The Killing That was the day they killed the Son of God On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem. Zion was bare, her children from their maze Sucked by the dream of curiosity Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind Had somehow got themselves up to the hill. After the ceremonial preparation, The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood, Erection of the main-trees with their burden, While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing, They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day. We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw The three heads turning on their separate axles Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn That hu…

Nesterov's image of holiness

Today I went to see the Nesterovs at the Tretyakov. 

They are signs of a coherent vision - of a Russia that is holy because it has grafted a Christian spirituality that has humility at its heart onto the spirit of place. The inherently muted tones of the landscape and its simplicity merges with the demands of the heart for coherence and a given openness to place, and to others.

Three elderly monks sit on a tree stump at lake and forest's edge greeting a fox as he emerges, without fear, from the trees. In their vision paradise is restored and one of the monk's looks at the viewer invitingly asking them to join this reality - to let grace in, grace that configures the world, waiting on our discovery.

But it is a vision whose ideal was undermined by the real divergence between it and the actual contours of religious life in Russia and by darker forces. 

Nesterov survived by retreating into portraiture - the vividness of the person., shaped individual and whole, must stand for the ima…

The Man in the Castle

Imagine that the Allied victory is a subversive novel abroad in a world where the Axis has won and where the relatively benign occupation of the Japanese is confronted by the next stage of the Nazi horror.

Imagine a cast of 'minor' characters, directly and indirectly, involved in both communicating the German plan of atomic holocaust to the Japanese and sparing the life (from German assasination) of the author of the subversive text.

Imagine a society that takes counsel from an ancient text of Chinese divination that seeks to restore harmony to a world where dark comes perilously close to extinguishing the light.

In this imagination you have many of the key themes of Philip K. Dick's illuminating novel. Most especially it is informed by a traditional religious trope: how do you distinguish the illusory from the real? how do you know that 'this world' is not an imprisonment of the soul, obscuring you from the light? The original Gnostic dilemma.

It is the first of…

Transfigured in Macedonia

It is an unprepossessing building on a hillside, outside the village (that has a new church), overlooking Lake Prespa, whose still waters are shared between Albania, Greece and Macedonia. St George's Kurbinovo is in Macedonia.

You have to wander the village in search of the key as the building is usually locked: the number of visitors small.

It was how I first came to it one September afternoon with the artist, Patrick Pye, and his wife, Noirin. They had come to visit me following Patrick's retrospective in the Royal Hibernian Academy when the Irish art world, entrenched in its secularism (for understandable reasons), decided, after all, that Patrick was a very fine painter, even if he persisted in the pursuit of sacred, Christian themes for his art. But in arriving, that late recognition had its consequences. Noirin took me aside when they arrived and shared her concern that Patrick was feeling 'painted out'.

We spent each day touring in leisurely fashion and the pri…

Burra illuminated

Skeletal figures in a bare, unfeeling yet sacred building stare into the grey ground in which rests a stripped skeleton like themselves yet without animation. Death as actor peers down at death as end.

This extraordinary dual painting by Edward Burra was completed in 1940. It speaks of its time when death stalked the world meeting its products everywhere. Both paintings are in Tate Britain's new 'Watercolour' show that wishes (and successfully) shows that watercolour is a diverse medium of great versatility from the particular clarity of illustration (with beautiful examples of flora and fauna painting) to the visionary haunting creations of Burra.

Looking at Burra this time (there are three more: Soldiers at Rye, Mexican Church and a landscape of Northumberland of a simple calm and beauty), I was struck again at what a fine painter he is and for all his refusal to discuss his art (or talk fart as he would put it), he is a painter of uncompromising intelligence, within th…

A mentor

It was a long cycle ride for tea at the Limes across the Oxfordshire countryside more than twenty years ago.

I was the 'programme co-ordinator' at The Abbey: an experiment in therapeutic living and Christian life that was flawed by two gifted founders with unacknowledged differences of vision (and practice). I was going to visit Michael, one of the Abbey's trustees, to explore future life options. I had an idea for a 'vocation network' that I wanted to try out on him (that probably required the new social media, then not thought of, to be realized in practice)! We had tea in that unique house, part aged, part creation of Jenny, Michael's energetic, creative and eccentric wife, now sadly dead and we became friends.

Michael helped find me my first real job in the charitable sector with a trust of which he was trustee (and with which I remain connected).

He is now nearly ninety-one, and frail. He complains that his mind no longer performs, and it does spend more t…

A novelist of domestic tragi-commodies

In her 1946 novel, The River,  the author, Rumer Godden,  describes her heroine's response to writing a poem she knows to be good: "It felt alive, as she did. She felt alive and curiously powerful, and full of what seemed to her a glory."

They are hallmarks of her own writing. She said she often came to the precipice of melodrama or unalloyed sentiment but stepped back. She stepped back into a clear eyed vision of how people relate to one another within the microcosm of families or enclosed communities (two of her novels are famously set  in convents) and between cultures - most commonly that of the English and of India. 

One of her favourite patterns is of the transition between childhood and adulthood, when an event and its unfolding consequences, often tragic, propel a child into a new maturity. She has a mastery of depicting how children see the world and how they oscillate between their own and an adult's world, learning to comprehend.

In 'Breakfast with …

Double identity

Christopher Isherwood was once trying to persuade a Jewish friend that as both members of a minority, persecuted by Hitler, they should make common cause for liberation. His friend replied, 'Yes, but though Hitler maybe killed 60,000 homosexuals, he killed six million of us"! To which Isherwood's reply was, "What are we embarked upon? Real Estate?"

A common fact of persecution is not a common bound.

This is more complicated if you are a member of two minorities, the majority of whose members carry the same hostility to your second minority membership, as the wider majority.

This afflicts Perry, a gifted art student, black and gay, making his own way after his parents have disowned him, in the interesting,  but flawed film, 'Brother to Brother'.

We watch Perry in his 'black cultural studies' class try to bring his own minority perspective to bear on the questions of black identity being discussed only to be rebuffed. He has betrayed that black ide…

If you go down to the woods today...

This the chapel/meditation space at the Forest of Peace (in Sand Springs, near Tulsa, Oklahoma) that is an ashram modeled after that founded by Father Bede Griffiths in India.

It is set in a beautiful ground of trees that stretch out and down towards the Arkansas river. While being a Christian place, it quietly, symbolically embraces the signs of other traditions, fingers pointing to the one light that transcends all, what that remarkable German mystic, Jakob Boehme, called the inner centre that embraces all outwardness.

It is a beautiful, peaceful spot, and I have sat there in silence, singularly and communally, for many hours but it has always been the woods that have been the space of greatest peace - to step out into them, walk and wander, lose oneself in their mixture of light and shade, to sit still, look out and down at the distance river, restored to a sense of unity.

I was thinking of this as I walked among trees this morning on the Welsh borders, wondering why it is that fo…

I go among trees

I Go Among Trees
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes, and lives awhile in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me, and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings and I hear its song.
After days of labor, mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last, and I sing it.
As we sing, the day turns, the leaves move.
Wendell Berry 
I sat opposite Wendell Berry, and his wife Tanya, one day at breakfast. It was a conference, the first Temenos conference, and I did not know who he was, excepting that he was one of the speakers - both giving a lecture and a poetry reading.  
I was then (as so often now) in meeting new people, shy, we exchanged pleasantries, forgotten, forgettable though I always r…

The Luminous Coast


This beautifully written book is the result of a year's exploration of the author's locality - both actually as he teaches at the University of Essex and in history as the place from which his immediate ancestors come. The given geography is East Anglia: Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

The local is exposed as hiding much that is unknown - geographies unexplored, ways of being and living un-encountered - and much that represents the wild. You do not have to travel outside your immediate geography to a find a world that resists human containment - that goes its own way, often subversively to human purposes. Wildness is a necessary substratum of all that lives.

This is most powerfully seen in the landscapes continuous reshaping by water, a water that refuses to accept the taming of our designs. One of the most moving sections of the book is the descripti…

July Changes by David Jones

July Changes by David Jones
In spite of the title, this translucent watercolour reminded me of Spring. It struck me today, coming back from Durham, as Spring's stages changed with latitude, brought home its dynamism, the latent energy of renewal.

David Jones is one of those quiet poet-painters whose work sits waiting discovery that in more celebratory nations would be articulated to prominence but here is sadly not.

He remains the best chronicler of the First World War, in 'In Parenthesis' in whose trenches he served - both in finding war's meaning and the collapse of that meaning in the second half totalitiy of its brutalities.

He is an 'historic' painter - even the flowers are chosen for their part in our story: a daffodil is never 'just' a daffodil but a connector of story, myth and poetic accumulation. How does this scene or life speak of our unfolding narrative as people and a transcedent one. What is the language of our effective signs that poi…

The denial of oxygen

Mrs Thatcher of troubled past memory once sought to deny the oxygen of publicity to Republican groups in Ireland who were committing acts of terror both in Northern Ireland and in mainland Great Britain arguing that an essential element to the hoped for success of their campaign was the publicity they received. The only problem with this approach is that those groups represented both wide constituencies and an historic grievance. A reality that ought to be legitimately reported on by the media.

I was reminded of this by the actions of Terry Jones because, by contrast, he is a person who might benefit from being deprived of the oxygen of publicity.  Since he represents no one - his purported church appears to have no more than a hundred members; has no recognizable grievance with Islam: and, has no creditable criticism of Islam (that would warrant anyone listening to him beyond his local bar stool).

Yet his actions have been given extensive coverage that has given rise now to real harm…